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Skradin, Hrvatska 3 October 2011

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On to Krka – more water

Down out of the mountains we go, toward the coast of Dalmatia – what a few friends have called "the most beautiful place I've ever seen." It's going to have to go some to beat Plitvička. The road continues twisty and hilly for awhile, but it's clear sailing. Then we emerge from the forested hills into a broad grassy valley with rocky ridges ahead, and we're back on the tollway.

The tollway sweeps its magnificent four lanes over an awesome ridge (with the help of a five kilometer tunnel) then snakes its way down toward the first of the "kanals." Gaia's skin is here wrinkled by some sort of tectonic force that has caused ridges, valleys, islands, and sunken valleys (fjords, but the Scandinavians object) all along this countryside. This makes for spectacular landforms, but the barreness of the karst is reminiscent of desert.

After an hour, we climb off the tollway, pay 45 kuna ($9) and down into a protected valley that is surprisingly green.

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On the big map (above) you can see the reason for our stop in Skradin: that little blue three legged glyph to the right is another of those rarities, water in the karst. This time, the karst has come up against the basement: sea level. After finding our room, we walk to the National Park office, get our tickets (80 kuna, about $16) and head to the marina where our ride awaits. The marina is tidal, and the boat ride to the dock at Skradinski Buk is a brackish estuary. Brackish because the volume of water flowing out of the Buk is staggering (and fresh water is lighter than salt water, and so rides on top.)

Our boat potters along slowly to avoid disturbing the swans and waterfowl nesting in the salt-tolerant reeds that line the estuary.

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Karst Dams

After about 4 kilometer, our boat docks and we begin our exploration of Skradinski Buk. Like Plitvička, the main events here are due to karstic damming, but the scale is completely different. An enormous volume of water spills over dams that are tens of meters tall. This is reputedly the tallest karstic waterfall complex in the world. We're here at the end of the dry season, and a good percentage of the water is being diverted through the hydroelectric complex, and still, the roar of the falls dominates the valley.

Unlike Plitvička, swimming is allowed below the lowest cascade, and the crowd here is younger and more adventurous. The air is a comfortable 24° Celsius (75°F) and so we are not moved to join them; the water, we can tell as the young ones enter, is bracingly cold. Gouts of spray emanate from the falls, and that, of course, is the cause for all the surrounding green. Nevertheless, as we walk through the park, we see evidence that in Spring, the water levels are much higher, and the park is much greener.

They love their steps here, and with falls this big, there are lots and lots of them to love. After their dips, the young ones bound up the steps while their elders take their time. This is also a much smaller park than Plitvička (or this part is. It has two other "units" farther upstream that we decide not to visit: another waterfall and a big lake with an island hosting a Franciscan Monastery.)

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The trail loop here starts with a bridge, lined with people taking pictures of each other and of the swimmers and (incidentally) the cascades. It seems that Krka is not as internationally known, and so the visitors here are predominantly Hrvat with just enough Austrians to keep things interesting. Everybody smokes everywhere. It's pretty amazing -- I guess these folks haven't gotten the memo? It makes us grateful for the consciousness we see at home.

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We have noted before that our US idea of a National Park -- focus on Nature, and keep the incidentals to a minimum -- is NOT the way Canada, or any other nation, does it. Here the visitor experience is dominated by people. The first few hundred meters (and few hundred steps)(kidding) are lined with local ladies hawking dried figs, olive oil, pomegranates, almonds, and silly handmade memorabilia. 

At the top, there are a cluster of small, beautifully built rock structures housing a buffet, an ethnographic gifts shop, a working blacksmith, a tee-shirt shop. Some of it makes sense, and so of it is just commercial clutter. The buffet in particular is beautifully sited and inviting, but we're here to look, not eat, so it's easy for us to keep our faces directed toward the cascades.

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It may be remembered that Nikola Testla was Hrvat, and so it is not surprising that only a few days after the first hydro plant came on line at Niagara Falls, another came online right here, and the city of Sibenik got electric light on 28 August 1895, weeks before the city of Buffalo. The old turbine and brickwork from the powerhouse is a big deal here. The falls were then an industrial site; now they are a verdant park.

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According to the unquestionable source of all knowledge, these cascades are nearly 50 meters in height, and there are a total of 17 separate waterfalls. An average of 55 cubic meters per second flows through the system -- and THAT is a lot of water!

That may not be the most remarkable thing about this place, however. Existing as it does as an island of surface water and humdity in a wrinkled, sparsely vegetated desert, it is a remarkable island of wildlife. Wikipedia again: 222 bird species live here (or are autochtonous) or migrate through; there are 18 species of bats; plant and animal life of all types is unusually diverse and concentrated. We saw fish and two frogs.

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This photo gives some idea of the power of the water flowing here. Where Plitvička's waterways were gentle, here the water pounds downhill with amazing speed and power ... again, it's the volume. This sluice fascinated us; trapped air behind it shifting shape, escaping, and being trapped again. The scale here is only a half a meter across the fastest moving part, but a hundred liters must be flowing through it every second.

All this up-and downing (after Plitvička) made us weary, so we were glad to catch a boat back, reward ourselves with our daily capuccini, and come back to our room to rest and post this page. And now, dinner. We're hoping for something better than National Park food...

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Faith restored (again)

We have crossed some sort of culinary "great divide" into the land of Garlic. We had such a good dinner! We had a recommendation from a friend for a restaurant called Zlatne školjke down near the marina in Skradin. Oh, boy, was she right!

You should know, first, that nothing in Croatia is free. It's all about goods and services for value received. So when we were seated and out came, unsolicited, a plate with lovely bruschette, I thought, "Hmmm?" We ordered garlic soup after not seeing garlic even mention on a menu for a month – that's the culinary divide we have crossed.

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The garlic soup was light, creamy, with garlic-flavored olive oil floating on top. Very garlicky. A soup I will try to reproduce. Paired beautifully with a yellowy house white wine, most likely a dry malvazija, for which Hrvatska is justly famous.

The restaurant caters to yachties and particularly, it seemed, germanophones (We were greeted, Guten abend.) The woman seemed the dominant one, but when the mussels came, the man tied my bib and showed me how to deal with the Adriatic Mussels, which (1) don't open when properly steamed, and (2) have a neck in the middle of the opening that isn't edible. I'm fairly sure these aren't really mussels, but a form of clam: hard to extract, rubbery, but Oh! so tasty!The shellfish were in a lovely wine sauce with a piece of bread soaking in the bottom. Nice touch.

On our way into the restaurant the proprietress showed us the fish on offer, and I showed her the three that I was interested in. Local species I wasn't familiar with. Sorry, no picture. When it was grilled, she carefully deboned the boney little cuss, and before we thought to take a picture, it was half devoured. Yummy! Buttery, white flesh, a little flaky, with a nice sheen of olive oil on it. Served with a dish of what they call here mangold -- swiss chard and local salty cheese.

When we were done, we were served a dish with jujubees and sugared almonds, a lovely after-dinner taste. "You might like some house grappa," said our hostess, who then brought two glasses and a bottle of ice cold grappa she left on the table. Delicious. And the best surprise of all: nor bruschetta, nor mangold, nor jujubes and almonds, nor even grappa, appeared on our bill.

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I forgot to mention the salads: this afternoon fresh, clearly locally grown, with just a bit of that tell-tale bitterness that tells you it's from a home garden. 

A $73 dinner, but Oh! so worth it (especially after the terrible national park food...)

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